editorial

Not a worldbeater

October 23, 2012 

It’s said that foreign policy begins at home, and perhaps that’s why Monday night’s presidential debate on foreign policy kept drifting back to domestic issues.

More likely, though, it was because both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know the Nov. 6 election probably will hinge more on perceptions of the U.S. economy than on the state of international relations. Even a foreign policy debate, it seems, can be prime time for last-minute talking points on domestic issues. Another round of the GM bailout/rescue, anyone?

And when their discussion did stay on topic, the president and the former Massachusetts governor focused on North Africa and the Middle East, bypassing whole continents and ignoring numerous emerging issues, before engaging, narrowly, on China. Conspicuously absent was a grander vision from either man of how the U.S. and China, in the 21st century, should manage relations so the century can be one of peace and prosperity for the Pacific region, rather than one of ever-looming conflict.

If these candidates have larger, transformative visions for the world and for international relations, they didn’t find ways to articulate them.

Instead, the talk was largely tactical. Curiously, after having made fatal lapses in diplomatic security in Libya a touchstone issue in recent weeks, Romney was remarkably restrained on the point Monday, perhaps wary of another rally-’round-the-flag haymaker from the president like the one Obama delivered last week. And though he tried, the Republican challenger could point to few meaningful differences in the policies he’d pursue. As Obama said, Romney foreign policy, in effect, turns out to be much like his, just louder.

The instant polls had Obama “winning,” as he had done in debate No. 2. Yet Romney committed no major gaffes and overall, emerged from the series of three debates in a strengthened position, no longer trailing in most polls and with his supporters energized.

Now, with face-to-face meetings between the two behind them (unless they ride together down Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 20), Americans can expect all-out political warfare for the battleground states in the campaign’s final two weeks. No debate about that.

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